Gigs of 2014

Maciek Pysz_Pizza ExpressOver the past year I have gradually moved from being “just” a member of the audience to an active promoter for a small jazz club and I’m the booking agent for a jazz musician.   And this has had quite an effect on how I experience live music.   I now know just how hard it is to get gigs, how a malfunctioning monitor means a musician cannot hear himself or anyone else,  how not wearing your earplugs as a drummer is to risk serious damage to your eardrums. All of these things, and more, make me marvel at the musicians I have heard this year.     So here are a few sketches of many happy hours:

Marius Neset in Brecon Cathedral in August.  The sheer effort of Marius’s performance –  seeing him gasp like a marathon runner, his body almost doubled over as he tried to take in air after filling the vaults with incredible blood curdling sound.  A friend overheard to say “I don’t mind I never saw John Coltrane, because now I  have seen Marius Neset.”

Jef Neve , solo, at Kings Place in November.   A performance that moved me very much, especially Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, a song  which Jef said had saved his life several times.  His simple heartfelt introductions to each song, like we were in his living room, enhanced the enjoyment.   His album One  is on my Christmas list.

Maciek Pysz at Pizza Express in March with Yuri Goloubev, Asaf Sirkis and Tim Garland.   Reviewed here.  And remembered most for the achingly beautiful Beneath an Evening Sky by Ralph Towner with duo between Tim and Maciek.

Phronesis at Union Chapel in May.  Clouds of dry ice softening our view in a huge venue, Anton’s smile when he saw friends on the front row. Jasper’s jokes. The sheer joy and energy of it, a wonderful huge sound, the retention of intimacy in a big space.

 Michael Wollny at Cheltenham Jazz Festival in April.    I decided not to listen to anything by him before the gig, I had heard of his reputation, but I wanted to discover him for myself. So I was completely blown away by his virtuosity,  huge presence and the togetherness of his trio, and the way I just “got” the music, from plain chant to rock.  He did not disappoint.  It’s great to be able to write that.

Roller Trio at Stratford Jazz in October.    It was such an honour to host Mercury Prize winners.   It’s not just that they write such catchy tunes, instantly hummable, their own sound.    It’s how they are on stage – no-nonsense, let’s get on with it and see what happens and let’s make sure people enjoy it because we will be enjoying it.  Banks of pedals in front of James.   Sounds that made your blood run cold with excitement and fear almost.  Luke’s drumming that could be heard down the street.

All these performances have one thing in common – they moved me, my life was richer because of them, and that is why they are my gigs of 2014.   Thank you, every one.

Mary James 16 December 2014

Album of 2014: Majamisty TriO – Love

Majamisty TrioMy Album of 2014:   Majamisty TriO –  Love stands ahead of very tough competition.  On the list I had Phronesis –  Life to Everything, Gwilym Simcock and Yuri Goloubev   – Reverie at Schloss Elmau ,  Mehliana  – Taming the Dragon,  Marcin Wasilewski Trio  – Spark of Life  and sneaking in –  in late October-  Majamisty TriO  –  Love reviewed here.   The year was one of great personal change – the loss of a very long term career and all the comfortable life that went with it,  a disastrous short contract taken on the rebound, deep questioning of my purpose in life.  And yet, overall the year has been filled with wondrous sounds, wonderful conversations  and opportunities I had no idea would await me.  So if this choice is unorthodox then it’s because this  year has been unlike any other.  A chance meeting in Belgrade led to this album.  And Love  represents a “recall to life” for me.  You won’t have heard of  Serbian pianist Maja Alvanovic  or this album I expect.  But check it out, its fragility, its deep roots, its beauty will impress you.  There is an album on the horizon for 2015 which is also going to add much to my life but I can’t tell you about that til next year!

 Mary James 8 December 2014

Album review: Majamisty TriO: Love

Majamisty TrioThe cover of Majamisty Trio’s Love shows two sisters standing side by side, smiling at the photographer.  I assume they are sisters and one of them is probably the pianist Maja Alvanović.  Their formal pose, their uprightness, their shyness contrasts so gently with the supple, graceful, confident music of Love.   Yet childish things are close here too – do you remember twirling round and round  til you were dizzy, playing hopscotch and never stepping on the cracks and best of all, jumping in puddles and whooping with joy as you splashed the grownups?   Such memories subtly creep into the rhythms and tempo of this elegant album by Majamisty Trio from Novi Sad, Serbia.  Love is an album as intoxicating, heady and bewitching as a shot of plum rakija,  its many influences  from Balkan folk to classical to Scandinavian (with every kind of dance in between) combining to create a ravishing album. An album which puts this piano Trio very firmly on the map for those of us who are new to them, although they were already there with their debut album Mistyland.

Each composition (all by Maja, with some collaboration with her band) is a painting, telling a story, as complete as a symphony.    Take Rain Dots, the piano as delicate as mist, Aleksandra Drobac’s vocals flute like an exotic bird, strings and percussion mimic other birds in the forest.   The title track Love makes a very grand statement, its mournful billowing trumpet striking and moving.   There is a lightness and delicacy about every instrument and voice as if everyone has been told to imagine their instruments are made of glass.  A simply beautiful album of glorious melodies, haunting wordless vocals, and delicious edgy cameos blending effortlessly with a perfect trio.  It will be on my list of Albums of 2014.

  • Maja Alvanovic, piano, vocals
  • Ervin Malina, double bass, vocals
  • Istvan Cik, drums, vocals

and guests

  • Aleksandra Drobac, vocals
  • Damir Bacikin, trumpet
  • Gisle Torvik, guitar
  • Bunford Gabor, tenor and soprano saxophones
  • Uros Secerov, percussion

http://majamisty.com/

Album available here

Mary James 25 November 2014

The 30th Belgrade Jazz Festival, 24-27 October 2014

logoThe 30th Belgrade Jazz Festival (24-27 October 2014),  organised and produced by Dom Omladine Beograda,  was a sell out festival, notable for its young, enthusiastic audiences and imaginative programming from Serbia, Europe, Africa and the USA.   The festival was established in 1971 as a mirror of the Newport Jazz Festival of that year. Subsequent years saw the development of the Newport-Beograd Jazz Festival and then the fully fledged Belgrade Jazz Festival.   The fall of communism caused a hiatus in festivals from 1991 until 2005 when the current organisers drew up lists of artists they wanted to see and rebuilt the festival so successfully that it has been accepted by the European Jazz Network, the first Serbian festival to be accepted.  Past programmes read like a Who’s Who of Jazz – Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock. Try to find a world class artist who has not appeared here!  This year’s theme was Jazz All Stars,  and the tireless organisers Marko Stojanovic, Voja Pantic,  and Dragan Ambrozic laid on a feast of Serbian rising stars to complement heavyweights from the USA, – Charles Lloyd (with his Wild Man Dance Suite), David Binney, John Patitucci, Brian Blade –  and introduced me to new talent such as Jacob Anderskov  from Denmark, whose almost classical set was very moving.

Something we could learn from – the Festival organisers, the Belgrade Youth Centre, have deliberately pitched pricing to be affordable to students and people on average wages.  The result was halls full of young people, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.  And workshops where students learn from masters and chat over drinks in the foyers and in late night jam sessions.

Petar Krstajić Belgrade
Petar Krstajić, image by kind permission of Tim Dickeson

What were my highlights?   Most notable was the young bass player Petar Krstajić, who has won a place at Berklee.  He started life as a pianist and at 19 has only been playing bass for five years.  Yet his beautiful duo of Ola Maria by Jobim with Vasil Hadžimanov was quite unforgettable for its delicacy. He’s already played with Shai Maestro, now he can add David Binney to his cv.  Such is the kudos of this Festival that young musicians are fast tracked in their careers.

Paolo Fresu
Paolo Fresu, image by kind permission of Tim Dickeson

Another highlight was Paolo Fresu Quintet, also celebrating its 30th year together  – his stance reminding me of a Botticelli trumpeter in a fresco. The skilful blending of trumpet and clarinet and reverb created a dizzy sound, intoxicating and disorienting.   The audience loved it.

And the festival experience?  The scheduling was perfect – no rushing from venue to venue. Time for drinks and chats, and enjoyable times with Igor Mišković whose gig I am sorry we missed. The venues were comfortable and spacious, the sound was excellent.   Don’t speak the language? It didn’t really matter – everyone was keen to try out their excellent English. Long lunches (including a particularly beautiful one on a floating restaurant on the Danube)  and late nights left little time for sightseeing, so guaranteeing we will return.  Belgrade is an interesting city, its past only just beneath the surface. Its people are its greatest attraction, strikingly attractive and eager to share their experiences. Go next year, you won’t be disappointed, this is an important festival that deserves our attention.

Concert review: The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, The Parabola, 5 July 2014

Moogs
Moogs

There was a very excited buzz in The Parabola last night – ten Moogs on stage, of varying sizes and instinctively you knew, of different temperaments, from the tiny Roland SH09 to the wedge shaped Korg MS20 and the archetypal Moog, the mini Moog ( illustrated).  Their oscillators so sensitive that the mere opening of a door which causes the temperature to drop a millionth of  a degree is enough to make them stop working.   The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, led by the composer Will Gregory (half of Goldfrapp) gave us two hours of great fun but also poignancy. They warmed us up with Handel’s Bourrée, just enough to get our ears attuned. Then Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 delivered at high speed like a giant fairground organ. But they hadn’t really got going yet.

Will explained you can sequence the Moogs – hands appeared to be lifted off the keyboards, just  a few knobs were twiddled and we had a premiere Carry on Noise Box, which ended up as techno with layers of white noise. By this time a small group in the gallery were dancing and the rest of us smiling with glee.  Then what else but some Burt Bacharach to ease us to the interval?   We’d had fun, we’d experienced wails, howls and pulsating rhythms. It all felt, well, very human. These were not machines being controlled by musicians, the Moogs had won us over with the breadth of emotions they displayed from sheer joy and bounce to deep, gut tingling throbs.

It was worth coming back for The Service of Tim Henman , through-composed by Will to a film about the tennis player. But nothing could have prepared me for this extraordinary work – a slow motion film which covered just a few seconds of a game but shown in very very slow motion.   It enabled us to slip inside the soul of Tim Henman through his steady gaze and cool eyes, to experience the loneliness of being on court, of the aggression you have to feel to win, and the desolation at a poor shot.  The score emphasised the pounding energy of tennis, the brutal nature of combat where you have no time to reflect on a victory but must plan the next move, and the next until you win.  Or lose. I do not know how the game ended, the camera in Henman’s face as he left the court seemed impertinent, we’d experienced so much with him.   And who would have thought that Moogs could do that?

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